and which can I use in my garden…
“We better make hay while the sun shines.”
When we talk about “making hay”, we are really talking about making something that an animal can eat. Hay is usually gathered up into bales, and stored for the animals to eat during the winter when the grass is not growing. In many parts of the world, farmers depend on hay to feed their cattle, sheep, or horses during the long winter period. In periods of drought, hay can also be used to feed animals when normal grazing is not enough. Many farmers specialize in growing hay that they sell to other farmers in their region.
We want hay to come from plants that are good and healthy for animals to eat. This could mean nutritious grasses like ryegrass or bermudagrass or from legumes like clover or alfalfa. Hay will often be a mixture of plants that can make it more nutritious. Growers need to be careful to not include plants that are poisonous. Hay is typically produced on perennial crops and often on land that may not be suitable for grain production. As such, it provides a valuable use for lands that would not be productive for other things.
The biggest difference between the production of hay and straw is that hay is typically harvested before the plants make seed and are just growing leaves. These leaves are packed full of nutrients and easy for an animal to digest compared to the low-quality stems left behind as straw. Those nutritious leaves are also more sensitive to the environment and can become moldy or damaged if they are rained on after harvest. So, the way growers store their hay is very important.
Straw refers to the plant material that is left over after grains like wheat and barley are harvested. The stems left behind become straw. Most of the nutrition of grain crops lies in the grain. The stalks that are remaining – the straw – are generally very low in quality and not suitable to feed animals.
Straw can be used as bedding for animals, as stuffing for a mattress, and can be used to make things like a basket or a straw hat. Recently, straw has been used as a fuel source for bioenergy. There are also some handy uses of straw around the house, such as a mulch to prevent erosion when seeding your lawn or placed around strawberry plants to prevent the fruit from laying on the soil. Straw has also become popular as a building material. The walls of houses or buildings can be insulated with bales of straw – a natural product that is relatively cheap to use!! And, of course, straw is a very popular decoration for the front porch during the fall season.
Why would that make a difference to us in the garden? The problem lies with hay. Hay often is made up of a combination of different plants growing in a field or meadow.
You never know what plant combination you’ll get in a random bale of hay. More often than not they contain weeds that you can inadvertently introduce to your property. I’ve seen such tenacious perennial weeds like thistle come into a garden as a result of their seeds hiding inside a bale of hay.
Straw on the other hand, is much better for use as a garden mulch. Since wheat and other grain crops are so competitive in a field, they suppress the growth of many weeds. Farmers also will control weeds one way or another to ensure the highest yields they can get of valuable grain. That results in straw with no or very little weed contamination. Sometimes you’ll see “spoiled hay” that may be high quality hay that was left outside in the weather and began to get moldy making it unacceptable as a livestock feed. That said: I use hay- mainly because we have it handy! Many a hay bale rolls into the garden….